No wonder everybody is so anxious all the time.
I grew up in New York State near the Canadian border on a road so rural that cable TV wasn’t even an option. Instead, we had a giant metal antenna balanced precariously on the roof of our house. When we wanted to watch a show, my dad would climb up a ladder and swivel the antenna around until a fuzzy picture emerged on our living room TV set. We’d watch until the wind blew and then we were out of luck for the next few days when my dad had some free time to do it all again.
Whether it’s nature or nurture, I never developed an affinity for TV the way my friends did. I didn’t identify with a Friends character or quote lines from South Park. Instead, I learned about popular shows by hearing about them on NPR or reading about them in the newspaper.
In my 20s, I had a lot of roommates who had TVs. And then by my late 20s when I was on my own, I just never got around to getting a TV. And whether it was coincidence or chemistry, when my husband and I moved in together, he didn’t have a TV either.
By the time I turned 30, I had accepted that we were not going to be TV owners. Some people have dogs, others don’t. Some people have cats, others don't. Some people had TVs, we didn’t.
Most of the time, I was low-key about it. Nobody wants to be around that person who brags about not owning a TV like it’s a badge of honor. And truth be told, I’ve always had a laptop where I can stream SNL clips or an odd episode of the Office here or there.
Over the years, the popular shows have come and gone. Dancing With the Stars, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones. 24, The Wire, The Bachelorette. Call me a liar if you want, but I’ve never seen one second of any of those shows. What I know about them, I’ve gleaned from overheard conversations and CNN articles about whatever scandals the actors in them always seem to be wrapped up in.
A few times, people have offered to give our family a TV, thinking we were too poor to buy one on our own.
When we had our daughter and later our son, people told us we would have to get a TV. They were concerned that our kids wouldn’t be normal, whatever that means. But we just never found the reason, time, or space to get one, and so our house has remained TV-less, even in a world of Black Friday sales and Best Buy catalogs.
Just recently, though, something changed. After several years of saving and deliberating, our family bought a condo to use in the winter as a home base for skiing and to rent out in the summer as an investment property. Our condo is not very exciting — small bedrooms, galley kitchen, family room.
But…BUT…we bought it fully furnished, so in addition to floral print furniture and peach polyester curtains, we also now own our first TV. It’s about as big as a wheelbarrow, and we were able to connect it to the internet with something called a ROKU. And so we’ve joined the masses.
We’ve been spending a few nights a week at the condo to do renovations, which means we’ve spent our evenings watching movies instead of playing cards or building with blocks. Both kids, unaccustomed to sitting for so long, complained that Elf and School of Rock were too long.
I don’t feel bad about any of this at all. We fought the tide for a long time and it’s 2020, so watch away, kids, watch away.
But then I spent two nights alone at the condo, finishing up some painting and cleaning projects. After 9 months of being all together all the time with my family, I was ready for the break.
At the end of the day, I settled into the floral couch and turned on the TV to find something to watch.
I skipped around, looking for free versions of shows I’d heard about on NPR. Sitting alone, in a new town, in a new room with weird smells and sounds, an uneasy feeling settled over me.
As I browsed, it struck me how many shows there are about terrifying things. Rapes, kidnappings, abuse, neglect. Death, war, disease, assault. I watched part of an episode of a show where a man attacked a woman in her office. The footage was violent and graphic.
My sensibilities aren’t hardened and calloused, and I found it upsetting to watch. It’s not that I’m a snowflake — I read all kinds of books about dark, scary topics. It’s that the images on the screen and the sounds from the speakers wrapped around me in a way that felt inescapable. A book can be scary, but if you look up for a second, you can re-ground yourself in reality.
I wanted to turn the TV off, but of course, I didn’t. I hit browse and watched the first five minutes of a dozen different shows.
Several years ago, I remember talking to one of my fifteen-year-old high-school students and her dad about how they liked watching the show Dexter together. I’ve never seen it, but NPR says it’s about death and dismemberment. Both daughter and dad praised the show for its entertainment value, and I took them at their word. Sure, it makes sense that you can enjoy watching something awful as long as you know it’s fake.
But sitting alone at my condo, I started to get freaked out. In the past, watching something violent or scary on my laptop was manageable. The small screen and the laggy streaming took the edge off the scary parts. And I could always click to another tab when things got intense.
But on my new TV, everything felt so real. The voices were so loud and the acting was so convincing. At one point, my dog barked at the door, wanting to go out, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to open it, sure there was a home intruder on the steps waiting to grab me.
According to the NIH, rates of anxiety have been rapidly increasing in young people over the last decade. The rate of young adults suffering from anxiety more than doubled from 2008–2018.
After spending two nights with the TV on, I can see why. When I finally went to bed, I had images in my head from the brutal attack I’d seen on screen. The next day when I was walking my dog, I jumped out of my skin when a stranger said ‘Hi’, certain he was going to shove me in a van and drive away. Had I spent the evening with a glass of wine and a jigsaw puzzle or a book, would I have felt the same way? I doubt it.
Listen, I know there are a lot of things to be anxious about other than TV. But things like Covid-19, politics, healthcare, and equal rights are a lot harder to fix than violent, terrifying, anxiety-inducing shows. I don’t want to sound preachy or like a dinosaur, but seriously, why do some people cinematically recreate the most horrific events possible so that other people can buy the largest TVs possible so they catch every detail in HD?!?
Last weekend when we went to our condo, we moved the TV into the basement so we could paint the living room. Our kids spread out on the floor with legos and later used the couch cushions to make a fort.
I don’t know what the future of our TV is. But I do know that I don’t want to feel scared and jumpy from staying up too late watching scary shows. So maybe we’ll leave it in the dark, cold basement for now.
For John Prine’s take, try this: